FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
RIVER HILLS MEGAPLEX LEGAL BATTLE CONTINUES
Despite upcoming ruling, appeals process to leave legality of lease uncertain for years
Austin, Texas – October 9th, 2013
The proposed River Hills Sports Complex would place a huge sports facility on the top of a hill in a quiet neighborhood. In addition to creating unprecedented light and sound pollution over a widespread area that includes some of the areas most scenic hill country, Lake Austin and Emma Long Park, it will expose residents and participating children to dangerous traffic conditions. Although originally advertised as “just for the kids,” the Complex is facilitated by an inappropriately generous Eanes Independent School District (EISD) lease, which provides extensive flexibility to host Adult Leagues and Tournaments and exempts EISD from any responsibility of monitoring or enforcing lease restrictions and property conditions.
In addition to the lawsuit currently being held in Travis County District Court, over 50 people in the area have filed a complaint with EISD over the lease. Regardless of the outcome of upcoming rulings, the appeals process is likely to leave the legality of the lease and the status of the project uncertain for years.
The lawsuit and preliminary hearing being heard in Travis County District Court:
A preliminary hearing on the lawsuit was held last week on Wednesday, October 2, 2013 in the Travis County District Court. The lawsuit was brought by a group of area neighbors against Western Hills Little League (WHLL) and EISD in April 2013 over their lease of school property for the proposed development of the River Hills Sports Complex. According to the petition filed with the court, EISD is required by Texas law to utilize school land for a school purpose. The use of EISD’s school land for the construction of a for-profit, adult-use, recreational sport complex is not an educational purpose, does not advance EISD’s mission as established by the Legislature, and therefore is not, under law, allowed. Furthermore, the petition claims that the lease terms amount to a sweetheart deal for WHLL, were obtained under highly questionable circumstances and should result in the lease being null and void.
EISD is claiming sovereign immunity as a defense in this case. Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine by which the sovereign or state is granted legal immunity from civil suit or criminal prosecution claiming that the ”sovereign is exempt from suit (on the) practical ground that there can be no legal right against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends.” It alleges that it functions above the law because it makes the laws. It is a historical concept predicated on the maxim that the King can do no wrong. While claiming sovereign immunity for itself, EISD goes on to disclaim the rights of the plaintiffs. It claims that they do not have standing as citizen taxpayers to the district and are not uniquely damaged by the lease, despite their proximity to the proposed complex. It additionally complains that the plaintiffs have failed to exhaust their administrative remedies prior to going to court.
The judge intends to rule on certain limited issues regarding the case in the next week or so. It is anticipated that the party that does not prevail in this situation will likely appeal the rulings in another process that could take up to 18 months from the date of appeal. At that point, depending on the outcome from the courts, the case could proceed back to District Court and be set for trial to determine the propriety of issues surrounding the lease and its legal status.
A Second Path to Justice:
EISD, in August 2013, passed a Second Amendment to the WHLL lease. The Second Amendment grants WHLL the right to sublease the property, the right to conduct revenue-generating activities on it, and the right to provide services to non-EISD groups or organizations. It effectively expands not only the nature of the Complex but also multiplies its activity. The Second Amendment goes on to refine and grant the privilege of preferred status to WHLL so that they may buy the property should the district decide to sell it. Lastly, in an earlier amendment, EISD agreed to redraw the lease boundaries in a manner more favorable to WHLL and increased the leased property by 1.8 acres for no additional compensation. These collective amendments have functionally created a new lease between the parties and have subsequently opened the lease to further scrutiny and potential legal action. WNA estimates that over 50 area residents have recently filed formal administrative complaints with EISD about the WHLL lease. They are complaining about many issues and have asked that the lease be ruled void at this time.
These administrative complaints are first heard at the school district level and go through the district’s hearing and appeals process. If the complaint is not resolved at that level, then it can be appealed to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in a process that could take an additional 6 months from the date of filing with that agency. Once the TEA process has been complete, the case would be filed in the District Court system and its appeals process, potentially resulting in several years passing before the final status of the lease is actually determined.
Bill Moriarty, President of WNA says, “We represent nearly 1,000 area residents, and our organization has complained to WHLL and EISD about issues with the land lease for over two and a half years. WNA supports the legal action our residents have taken in the district court as well as the recent action taken by over 50 concerned citizens through the administrative complaint process. We know frustration with this proposed project is building every day and that the district and WHLL have not been responsive to the issues that we’ve raised, but we encourage everyone to be patient and to keep letting your voices be heard. EISD and WHLL need to know that we are in this for the long haul because we truly believe this is in the best interest of our neighborhoods and in the best interest of the Westlake community”.
Two years ago, EISD granted a controversial 50-year lease to Western Hills Little League to develop a 50-acre Sports Complex on land that was being held by the district as a potential school site. The property is located on top of a hill 1.1 miles into a quiet western Travis County neighborhood with no nearby commercial development. River Hills Rd. is the only access road to the tract, and it is a narrow, two-lane road with no shoulders in most areas and many blind 90-degree curves. The intersection leading to the site does not have a traffic signal and is dangerous because of the speed of traffic on Bee Caves Rd. and a nearby hilltop that blocks the view of the intersection.
Mr. Moriarty explains, “In addition to issues with the lease, we have voiced our strong concerns about traffic safety issues, environmental issues, adult usage of the “Youth” complex, light and noise issues, and the for-profit nature of parts of the project. WNA has commissioned a traffic study to analyze the traffic from the sports complex, and it projects that traffic back-ups will exceed one mile, block emergency services to residents, and cause the throngs of sports visitors to be exposed to a dangerous left turn at an intersection without a signal. We have asked for a full traffic signal at this intersection, and at this time, we understand that TxDot is considering half-measures that are unsuitable and potentially dangerous solutions.”
Mr. Moriarty goes on to add, “This project is huge, and it’s not in the right location. To place a high intensity use facility, with a parking lot the size of a Wal-Mart, including twelve active sports fields and a 60,000 square foot indoor complex, on property with extreme access issues is irresponsible. Most regional sized complexes like this one are located next to major road corridors to safely handle the traffic.”
Ed MacInerney, an area resident, says “Residents in our neighborhoods have been very supportive of youth sports over the years. However, this proposed development has too many issues. The Sports Complex will create huge traffic safety issues as well as environmental and water quality issues. Recently, there was a serious accident when a car and a motorcycle collided on one of the blind curves near the proposed sports complex site. This is a dangerous road and will only be made worse if the complex is built at this location. We have asked the developer to provide solutions, and we simply haven’t gotten any.”
Norbert Wangnick, a resident of Seven Oaks agrees adding that “There are over a dozen nearby subdivisions that will be negatively impacted if this development goes in. Other neighborhoods, even off of Loop 360 and the other side of the lake are realizing the significant impact that comes from putting a huge sports complex with bright ball field lights and loudspeakers on a hilltop. Most people don’t realize this site is only a few hundred yards away from Lake Austin and is directly across from Emma Long Park. We have voiced our concerns about light and noise pollution to WHLL for over two and one-half years to no avail. Furthermore, attempts to limit the use to area children have been rejected – apparently in hopes of hosting adult leagues and large regional tournaments.”
Much better alternative locations are available. Lewis Talbert, another area resident says, “Western Hills challenged us to find an alternate site for their fields, and we have done that. We have recommended that they consider another EISD property, the Baldwin Tract, which is just a couple of minutes west on Bee Caves Rd. It’s larger, with better topography and is located next to a commercial area that has excellent, safe access for high traffic volumes making it much safer for families going to and from the complex. The School District has indicated a willingness to consider this site. Our residents are committed to working with the various youth organizations in hopes of finding a better solution that works for the entire Westlake Community.”
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About the Westlake Neighborhood Alliance:
The Westlake Neighborhood Alliance (WNA) is an association of nearly one thousand nearby residents who are actively opposing the Commercial-Sized, For-Profit Complex known as the River Hills Sports Park. Our diverse groups of residents live in neighborhoods along both 2244 and 2222 including River Hills, Canyon Oaks, Seven Oaks, Rob Roy on the Lake Section One, Rob Roy on the Lake Section Two, Rob Roy, Rob Roy on the Creek, Lake Hills, Estates of Carriage Crossing, Wood Island, and 2222 CONA.
Westlake Neighborhood Alliance
William Moriarty, President
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